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Cultural, Multicultural, Cross-cultural, Intercultural: A Moderator’s Proposal

Susan Fries Abstract This article is an attempt to cover some of the issues of terminology, philosophy and politics at the point where language teaching and culture meet and sometimes collide. It is intended for English teachers who have not had much contact with the field of intercultural communication, except perhaps what they have seen in recent EFL course books. Nevertheless, many of these teachers have had some personal experience of functioning in more than one culture, for example as an EFL teacher in a foreign country, or of dealing with students from cultures other than theirs. This is the case in almost every EFL classroom nowadays: even French native speakers teaching English in French schools have have students of foreign origin or of mixed background.

Background
This article was inspired by promotional material that was sent out before the 2002 TESOL-France Colloquium, which posed some provocative questions around the conference topic, itself presented as a question : A Cross-Cultural Approach to the Teaching and Learning of English ? I was asked to be moderator of the opening roundtable discussion since some of the colloquium organizers knew I was interested in intercultural communication and had been teaching it for several years. The roundtable included four of the distinguished colloquium speakers, and showed how different their perspectives and areas of interest were on this question. Members of the Paris audience asked questions and made comments, broadening the topic even further in a spirited and very subjective debate about choosing the appropriate variety of English, accent and culture to teach in different environments. While preparing for the round table I had vowed to remember that the discussion was not about my personal opinions. As it turned out it most definitely was not, since it rapidly developed a life of its own, over which I felt I had very little control. This article might be considered as my turn, my way of entering the debate, which is why I’ve called it “A Moderator’s Proposal”. (Since my title is a play on words and a cultural reference, you might say it is a paradoxical choice for an article which is not at all ironic, and in which I hope to be inclusive.) I am writing as an American who has lived in France for more than twenty years and is now a dual national. I studied French at school and in college, and now teach English at a French “grande école”. For the past ten years, the theme of some of my classes has been “Intercultural TESOL-France http://www.tesol-france.org/

the death penalty). or to examine the interactions of students from different countries enrolled in a specific class or program. part of a content-based approach to language teaching. In addition. cream teas) or from a political and current events point of view (crime. “An intercultural approach to language teaching” I would like to propose that taking an intercultural approach to language teaching does not mean “teaching culture”. “Culture shock” and “cultural adaptation” are thus intercultural notions. but would consider each country or region separately and would not suggest any interaction between the various educational systems. TESOL-France http://www.tesol-france. my doctoral research in linguistics deals with the intercultural aspect of foreign accents and communication. Cross-cultural. On the other hand. I have entitled my class “Intercultural Communication”. Others use the terms interchangeably. “cross-cultural” applies to something which covers more than one culture. gun control. Intercultural : A Moderator’s Proposal page2 Communication”. whereas in English we have both “intercultural” and “cross-cultural”. In our usage. From an intercultural perspective. An intercultural approach also goes beyond lists of “Dos and Don’ts” and does not purport to give students tricks or recipes they can apply whenever they communicate with people from a given culture. because like many people involved in this field. For example “a cross-cultural study of education in Western Europe” would be a comparison of chosen aspects of education in various countries or regions. Terminology: cross. Far from the “cultural imperialism” mentioned in one of the provocative questions from the 2002 colloquium literature.org/ . be it from an anecdotal point of view (Beefeaters.Cultural. so it seems important to rule out those that are not pertinent in the context of intercultural communication. the term “intercultural” implies interaction. I distinguish between these two terms. it would be possible to study the experiences of students or teachers who move from one educational system to another. Many English speakers favor “crosscultural”. Multicultural. Definition of culture The word “culture” has many definitions. some almost avoiding “intercultural” as if it were a case of vocabulary interference with French.or inter-? In French the only possible adjective for this field is “interculturel”. “native” or “non-native”. with curiosity and respect. double-decker buses. an intercultural approach should enable learners of English to treat other speakers of English.

Thus culture is learned through interaction. None of these definitions apply in the field of intercultural research. it becomes clear that all human beings “have culture”. no matter what their level of formal education. In this definition there is the suggestion of an ongoing process. will have to “explain” and deal with the difference between his true culture (say. Edward T. you may have only the vaguest notions of any of these things. Hall. as in “the man ain’t got no culture”. Likewise we speak of someone as “cultured” or “cultivated”. although we can’t totally discount the impact of their very first experiences. Primatologists have even discovered that groups of chimpanzees share rudimentary culture. “la culture du maïs”). Students will easily concur that a person can be fully a member of his culture even if he or she is illiterate. of culture as a group creation rather than a solidified object.tesol-france. beliefs and behaviors of a group of interacting people”. Groups and culture It is crucial to remember that culture is learned. Nevertheless the definition of culture that is uppermost in many people’s minds is that of “high culture”. and shared by the people interacting. based on his appearance. or belong to. With this intercultural definition. Definitions that compare culture to an iceberg or to an onion are somewhat misleading. Bennett uses the term “big C Culture” for the above aspects of culture. to take one example. despite their obvious pedagogical appeal. Cross-cultural. an American interculturalist and the founder (with his wife Janet) of the Intercultural Communication Institute in Portland. Intercultural : A Moderator’s Proposal page3 For example. This differs from the purely instinctive behavior shown by other animals. and not TESOL-France http://www. Likewise to have “French culture” you don’t need to be an expert in French literature. which is precisely why we tend not to realize that we “have”. gave this definition in a seminar I attended: “the learned and shared values. in English we still speak of a culture of cells in a Petri dish. and “little c culture” for aspects of behavior that are learned more implicitly. music or architecture. which defines culture from a more anthropological perspective. in his seminal work The Silent Language. a culture. developing and then teaching each other specific methods of gathering food and grooming in different geographical areas. Oregon.Cultural. Children adopted as infants will have the culture of their adoptive parents and their society. says that culture is “out of awareness”. or of the “cultural” events scheduled in a certain town on a given weekend. which are still apparent in French (e. Multicultural. art.g. And of course an Asian child adopted by non-Asian parents in Europe. Milton Bennett. Latin scholars might emphasize the agricultural roots of the term. the sound of their birth mother’s voice!).org/ . Some of the words in this definition bear emphasizing. We have picked up certain beliefs and behaviors through every succeeding moment of our existence. not something “in one’s blood”. even those in the womb (for example. German or French) and the culture that outsiders may expect him to have.

Most of the trivia they include is funny. Many English-teaching course books written in the last few years contain lists like this. Or the fact that you shouldn’t show the sole of your shoe in an Arab country. Do’s and Don’ts Interculturalists are often wary of lists of “Dos and Don’ts” devised for people who are planning to travel or work in foreign cultures. they tend to assume that their group’s way of thinking or acting is human nature.tesol-france. Multicultural. Most people are not aware of how much their culture shapes their attitudes towards time.) What is the organization of the year. and placing the conflict or misunderstanding on an interpersonal level. Before jumping to this conclusion. I think this can be an enjoyable speaking activity for a group of students. Concerning time: How do people conceptualize it. for example the warning about which way to hold your hand in Britain when you order “two beers”. it is often helpful to look at the situation from an intercultural point of view. and what importance is given to the past. and the day? What does it mean to be “on time” in different situations? If you ask any group of students whether they feel it is important to be “on time”. Cross-cultural. dinner at a friend’s house and so forth. to name three major areas of difference. to avoid insulting the bartender with a vulgar gesture. amusing customs that we can learn about. Students tend to forget that they. Intercultural : A Moderator’s Proposal page4 necessarily because our parents or other people have explicitly told us “Do this” or “Don’t do that”. From an intercultural perspective. you will get a range of answers corresponding to different psychological or personal profiles. or impolite. and interpersonal communication.org/ . Major areas of difference Due to the fact that people are unaware of having learned their cultural behavior. but it is a bit like learning what the traffic signs mean in a foreign country: vital but superficial. often in the form of a quiz. which can actually be a lot of fun for students to talk about. Or that French students shouldn’t necessarily rush to kiss their English-speaking hosts on both cheeks at the airport. In my opinion we should not be teaching Germans and Americans that “the French are never on TESOL-France http://www. Unfortunately it also fosters the idea that foreigners have all sorts of odd. space. unreasonable. have habits that might seem odd and amusing to an outside observer. too. The discussion changes radically if you ask students what time they would expect to arrive in order to be “on time” for a 10 o’clock meeting at work.Cultural. for a class. and the future? (Cultures do not necessarily see these as existing along a timeline. this question is meaningless. however. the present. fascinating or surprising. Hence their shock or anger when other people behave in ways they interpret as illogical.

and how much is suggested indirectly? In France the skill of social discourse is so prized that when there is a sudden lapse in the exchange. Clearly if you are doing business with people from another culture. I can’t suggest a more faithful English translation myself.Cultural. whereupon the other person will pull back. Concerning space: How is it divided up and shared? What are the notions of territoriality. gestures and facial expressions. however. movement. and will move in.T. of public and private space? How do individuals define their personal space or “bubble”. but these norms vary from culture to culture. Hall called “proxemics”? In any culture the distance we stand from another person varies depending on our relationship to them and the place where we find ourselves. and when “lateness” (by German or American standards) should not be perceived as insulting but merely as culturally-linked behavior. Raymonde Carroll might say they are acknowledging that they have collectively dropped the ball. but in fact that would be incorrect) try to establish the speaking distance that they were brought up to feel comfortable with. for example.tesol-france. That means that in an intercultural situation one person might want to stand closer than the other. Cross-cultural. but the French title is a lovely description of culture: something obvious and yet invisible.org/ . in order to avoid offense on all sides. Interpreting people’s body language is an important skill and can even be a defense mechanism. since she describes conversation in France as a sort of group endeavor. Multicultural. Her book comparing French and American (US) culture is called “Evidences invisibles”. TESOL-France http://www. even if they are not aware of it. People naturally (I almost said “instinctively”. followed by a silence. difficulties may arise when we “decode” the body language of people from other cultures as if they were members of our own culture. Concerning conversation : What is the pattern of turn-taking. you might want to find out what time they really expect you to arrive at the meeting. The first person might perceive the other as cold or “standoffish” (note the term). that is “an angel passes/ is passing”. eye contact? Many of my students seem to think that only people from certain cultures “use” body language. Students usually don’t realize that their own bodies are communicating information at any given moment. Concerning body language: What is communicated through posture. in other words how much overlap is there between speakers? What rituals are expected? What topics are avoided? How much information is transmitted explicitly. what E. Once again. translated as “Cultural Misunderstandings”. but rather exploring what it means to be “on time” in different situations in France. Intercultural : A Moderator’s Proposal page5 time”. some people say “un ange passe”. Things become complicated when people from different cultures interact. for example the Italians. whereas the second person will probably think his interlocutor is pushy or “in his face”. obvious to those who share it and often invisible to those “outside”.

Cultural. They sometimes feel they have the best of both worlds. Yet another group. sometimes called “third culture kids”. Intercultural : A Moderator’s Proposal page6 These are only a few of the questions that might be asked about each of these topics. “Here I’m Chinese. The simple fact of making students aware of these areas of difference is enough to suggest other interpretations than those that would be the most obvious in one’s own culture. or with grandparents. I don’t think it’s necessary for the instructor to be able to give precise answers to all of these questions for a given culture or situation. On the other hand “multicultural” and “bicultural”. Other individuals become bicultural through interaction with a mother and father from different cultures. Multicultural. Culture of individuals Just as most human beings speak more than one language.org/ . diplomatic or business-related. As a young man in one of my classes said. when applied to an individual. This can happen in many ways. and sometimes that they are not truly at home in either culture.tesol-france. When applied to a society. should they necessarily interpret it as they would in their own home town? It will also be useful for students to realize that even if the teacher is a member of the “target culture”. and may even apply to most people in border regions where two groups interact frequently. influenced by the feedback they receive from others. suggest mixing or multiplicity. Cross-cultural. often military. Bicultural individuals have necessarily lost the innocent and dangerous belief that there is only one way of doing things or of looking at a problem. in-your-face debating style and frequent interruptions. Frequently they move back and forth on a continuum between these two feelings. if Midwestern Americans in France are taken aback by what they perceive as an unsmiling. usually due to their parents’ professions. sex. the term “multicultural” can suggest a “mixed salad” and does not necessarily mean that each individual belongs to many different cultures. the ability to function in at least two different groups. stepparents. Many people believe in the dubious notion of a “perfect bilingual” with a native command of two languages and no influence of one language on the other. For example. subject to people’s image of themselves. many of us “share” more than one culture with different groups of people we interact with. Few people would expect this lack of influence in the case of two co-existing cultures. which also includes other characteristics such as age. TESOL-France http://www. has lived briefly in many different cultures. but when I go back to Taiwan I’m the Frenchy. and profession. This is part of the construct of identity. It can be the case of immigrants or anyone who lives with members of another culture and assimilates aspects of their behavior. his or her reaction is not necessarily the only possible or even the most likely one for that culture.” This comment emphasizes how the perception of personal culture is constantly changing. or caregivers.

racial and ethnic variation.tesol-france. Once again. it might seem ludicrous to generalize about a country like the United States. It seems clear that in some circumstances we can achieve a form of compassion or empathy for other human beings despite the barriers of language or culture. I can also hypothesize that certain areas of human endeavor. Intercultural : A Moderator’s Proposal page7 Objections: We are all the same…We are all different There are many grounds on which people can object to intercultural research and analysis. and prefer to emphasize those aspects that are common to all human beings and the ways in which we are all one. for example. because they transcend language. this argument is true and impossible to refute. whether they involve acceptance of one overriding musical code (eg. Likewise some physical activities or sports may create a framework of rules and behavior in which other differences. due to all the variation in any group of human beings. there will be many exceptions to any generalization. On a spiritual plane. or when we are faced with extreme circumstances that remind us of our common mortality. But to echo a statement many teachers have probably heard from students learning Business English. This same argument can be made for certain professions. in addition to socio-economic. Those who do may not need intercultural sensitivity training as much as the rest of us. Multicultural. including cultural ones. or that we are all ultimately different. the hard part is when the engineers take a break for lunch or dinner. TESOL-France http://www. this argument is impossible to counter. All the same: humanity transcendent For philosophical or spiritual reasons. make communication possible even where languages and cultures differ: music and dance come to mind. We are all different A second objection to intercultural generalizations comes from those who maintain that we are all different. are less important. given the important regional.org/ . some people reject the differentiation implied by intercultural analysis. I’ve heard it said that engineers from different countries understand each other through a shared code of engineering values and behavior. since each human being is unique. and two of the primary ones are apparent opposites: the argument that we are all basically the same. people of many cultures in an orchestra playing a Mozart symphony) or the fusion of several traditions to create a new form. This is especially true when we manage to rise above the level of day-to-day experience. Cross-cultural. At the national level. so I won’t even try. Few people seem able to sustain this level of connectedness as they go about the tasks of daily life. In many Western countries the assertion of each person’s individuality and “self” is a key cultural value.Cultural. Related to this fundamental notion is the fact that.

I think it is important to underline that stereotypes say something not only about the people being judged. TESOL-France http://www. the more they can see these differences. as long as people are aware of the great appeal and the great danger of stereotyping. to generalizing about people in Nice compared to those in Marseille. Stereotypes One of the most frequent criticisms made about intercultural awareness training or about any discussion of “cultural differences”. will ultimately gain credence with some of the people who hear it. and those in a specific region can also see differences between inhabitants of two nearby towns. angry groups of people. insofar as they play into the “us vs. but can also provide dangerous scapegoats for large. Since stereotypes are by definition oversimplified and by nature judgmental and often derogatory. Cross-cultural. Northwestern Europe to Southwestern Europe. on top of such variables as education. or to continue “upwards” and compare France to other European countries. The intercultural approach hypothesizes that there are useful generalizations to be made at any of these levels. from comparing individuals. profession. but also about those doing the judging and their vision of themselves. Shared stereotypes can be hardier. this would certainly not encourage effective intercultural communication. Yet on the other hand we are all familiar with the idea that a lie. It is possible to generalize at any of these levels. then this stereotype must have a “kernel of truth”. Europe to North America. Milton Bennett speaks of different “levels of analysis”. The more people know about a given area. is that they encourage the propagation of stereotypes concerning people from other cultures. age and sex. or people in the French Mediterranean region compared to those in Alsace or in Brittany. them” mentality. They can provide a fairly harmless outlet for the frustrations of the “out” group. In fact this is also true for countries that appear to be more homogeneous.org/ .Cultural. Intercultural : A Moderator’s Proposal page8 political and religious differences. or even Western countries to Asian countries. In my opinion it can be useful for students to visualize these levels. There are those who maintain that if enough people in a culture share a stereotype about another group. for example in the case of host-culture bashing on the part of foreigners living there. Western Europe to Eastern Europe. Personal or idiosyncratic stereotypes are easy to form through personal contacts. if repeated often enough. but relatively easy to counter on the basis of logic. say individual French people. This is said to be especially true when people from different cultures share a common stereotype about a certain cultural group.tesol-france. The French are quick to differentiate between people in various regions. Multicultural.

But I have also had students who were very reticent. I think it is important for the instructor to remind students of the limits of generalization and the importance of the words used. One of them challenged me: “Just because adapting to French culture was hard for you.tesol-france. why do you have to assume it’s that way for everybody?” And of course I can’t assume that. whereas the same information could be expressed in a more neutral. to the point that we must sometimes resemble members of a cult. and have refused to talk about themselves as representatives of a certain culture. they should feel free to say “I don’t really want to talk about that” or “That’s a bit personal”. whereas generalization allows room for variation. myself included. Some of your students will be very interested in these ideas already. warning against insensitivity and ethnocentrism. and tend to assume that we can help others over some of the hurdles we have encountered. At the beginning of the course. All I can say to other English teachers is that some students in my intercultural communication classes have been very grateful to learn that their “culture shock” or adaptation problems were not rare. or young people from culturally-mixed backgrounds. less aggressive way. and ready to share their experiences.org/ . Our insistence on the potential difficulties of intercultural communication makes some people want to protest. Nevertheless in an increasingly multicultural France these students are often eager for recognition. so that even students who are interested in the course material may prefer not to talk about their personal experiences. or of a group such as “beurs” (“verlan” or backwards language slang for “arabe”. people of Arab origin in France). Does this sound like proselytizing or political correctness? Holier and more sensitive than thou? People who believe in encouraging intercultural awareness. preaching tolerance and ethnorelativity.Cultural. They feel we are accentuating the negative. Multicultural. stereotyping often uses words that are derogatory and emotionally charged. Stereotyping lumps all members of a group or culture together. but to be willing to modify these expectations if the individual seems not to fit the expected “norm”. Most of us have experienced life in another culture. sometimes take on an almost zealous air. It encourages people to approach an individual with certain expectations. Teachers should nevertheless be aware that culture and identity are extremely emotional topics. Students like these may be more common in an ESL context than they are in an EFL context like France. TESOL-France http://www. In classes where I have had a very open student who was willing to share his or her stories. Intercultural : A Moderator’s Proposal page9 Whenever the subject comes up in class discussions (which is often). although I may secretly think that some objectors need to spend a little more time in another culture before we talk. whereas their intercultural experiences have been largely positive despite an absence of consciousnessraising. the other students have been fascinated and touched. In addition. I always tell students that if ever I ask them an “intercultural question” they don’t care to answer. Cross-cultural. Many of them were foreign students who had come to France to study.

Just as they need to know how to “moderate” their opinion as they increase in proficiency. Clearly. and that people who feel they have found the one good way are frightening. Some of them. Intercultural : A Moderator’s Proposal page10 Finally. tolerance and empathy in a world that seems increasingly marked by a return to radical tribalism and various aggressive fundamentalisms which claim to have the moral and spiritual high road. Multicultural. Cross-cultural. “cold” and many other adjectives applied to people and their actions. depending on the personality and culture of the speaker. critical judgment and genuine sentiment. even if we do not teach intercultural awareness per se. It is my hope that intercultural sensitivity can further understanding. no matter which way they have found. and the fact that the assumptions on which these judgments are based may not be shared by people from different cultural backgrounds. The same is true for “logical”. incapable of person opinion. in English as in other languages. who have never been abroad or who have spent only a few weeks as tourists or visitors. sometimes people are shocked by behavior they feel shows a lack of “common sense”. they can also learn to appreciate the extent to which many words and expressions are based on cultural norms. I don’t believe that people have to relinquish their moral code or consider that all morality is relative. Conclusion I admit that it sometimes seems incredibly naïve to speak of acceptance.org/ . However I would like them to be aware of the implicit judgment behind many words. in any class there will certainly be some students who have never given the matter any thought. “hypocritical”. For example. something that makes sense to members of one culture may make no sense at all to members of another.Cultural. will tell you a year or two later that they appreciate the course more after having done an internship abroad or having had another intercultural experience. “dirty”. in my experience. we are constantly dealing with our students’ use of language and attempting to help them make it more appropriate to their situation and goals. by allowing people to move past some of the “annoying” behavior and “exotic” customs of members of other TESOL-France http://www. “late”. I am not suggesting that students and instructors should become paragons of political correctness. No one would be surprised at the idea that “beautiful” and “delicious” can qualify very different objects.tesol-france. The language of intercultural awareness As English teachers. and how to be polite in various situations. I do believe that there is more than one path to knowledge and truth.

Trompenaars. (Second Edition) Nicolas Brealey. (Originally Evidences invisibles.tesol-france. References Asselin. Cross-cultural. 2001 : Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French. 1959: The Silent Language. Susan is currently an Assistant Professor in the Département Langues et Formation Humaine at Institut National des Télécommunications in Evry. Biodata I think I would like the biodata to read like this: Former Secretary of TESOL France. After completing a DEA in Linguistics at the Université de Paris V. where she teaches English theme classes on intercultural communication. Raymonde. Fons & Charles Hampden-Turner 1997: Riding the Wabes of Culture. We human beings often fear and dislike the unknown. Edward T. Translated by Carol Volk. Gilles & Ruth Mastron.Cultural. Intercultural : A Moderator’s Proposal page11 cultures. TESOL-France http://www. Hall. Carroll. Training in intercultural awareness can make the unknown seem a little less surprising. Le Seuil). Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business. she has begun her doctoral research on how foreign accents (in particular American and French accents) influence communication and people's perception of themselves and others.org/ . Intercultural Press. 1987: Cultural Misunderstandings : The French-American Experience. University of Chicago Press. Multicultural..